Paradise Lost 

1 January 2003

As the time of writing this, most of us will be getting ready, after Christmas that is, and in the words of TVS, to “bring in the new”.

But it’s not TVS I want to talk about, and it’s not so much about seeing it the new, it’s a quiet reflection about seeing out the old. More or less at the time of writing this, there is a empty shell of a building in the centre of Birmingham, a greyish concrete part-apex roofed building which holds dear to many a TV enthusiasts heart, Central studios, or it’s first incarnation: the ATV Centre.

Being born in 1980, I’m not going to claim to be the world’s expert on ATV. But this I can tell. The sixties were a very exciting time for Birmingham: Harold Wilson’s Labour government, with his “White Heat of Technology”, was already clearing out the slums of many a town and city like Birmingham. Redeveloping areas with (then) clean, modern tower blocks for those living in back-to-backs, and in Birmingham’s case shopping was about to become a little more “easier” (Brummies may spot the joke here) with the legendary Bull Ring Centre. Things were moving on at some pace, yes indeed.

Midlands television, still on monochrome 405, was being served by ATV on weekdays and ABC weekends from the Aston studios, a train ride from the centre of Birmingham. In the franchise changes, ABC packed up and left to become Thames in London and Lew and friends found themselves thrown out of London weekends by David Frost and Michael Peacock’s LWT.

Lew, as usual down but never out, had retained his Midlands contract and gained the weekends. They had won ‘second prize’, but ATV realised that the old Aston studios were below the mark for a seven day service, and with the imminent arrival of 625 line colour, they opted for a new television complex in the centre of Birmingham.

Richard Seifert and Partners won the contract to design, C.Bryant and Son were the builders. The first live television came from the studios, an announcement, in September 1969, and the rest more or less is history.

Or it will be soon. 2002 is the last full year that ATV Centre will be a full building, the equipment, life and soul stripped by Carlton in one of their efficiency drives back in 1996, and it’s been empty ever since.

Let’s stop the tears a minute and go back to, in our imaginary time machine, to around 12.00 on Thursday 19 March 1970 to the Centre. The atmosphere is formal, Lew’s been looking forward to this for a long while: it involves royalty, and although not top-line royalty, it is royalty none the less, enough to be dragged away from the telephone of Great Cumberland place, or away from Elstree.

He’s chomping on a cigar, he’s been in talks with Roger Moore again, and is just-on-the-verge of clinching a deal to get that big star from America for that entertainment show which he can then sell back to the Americans for a high price, because he is Lew Grade, one of Nature’s sales (and show) men.

And back in Birmingham he’s lord of all he surveys, this centre being a new pinnacle for ATV and for ITV itself, as the new centre will be the network centre for schools programmes. Come on, smell the air here and get the feel, don’t choke on Lew’s cigar smoke though. You can see it, trust me, every bad dickie bow, frilly shirt and cummerbund, every ridiculous 1970 dress and high hair sported by the ladies. Magic isn’t it. I wouldn’t touch those vol-au-vents on the celebratory dinner, Lew’s just flicked a bit of ash into a few, accidentally, as we stand looking at the woman with the hair which looks like a blonde beehive, but with curls, in a blue dress with bits dangling off it… Well, that sums all that was chic up the 1970s.

The ribbon has been cut and the announcements, schools junction with the windy-back clock, “The Golden Shot” with Charlie Williams, ATV Today with Bob Warman, flan-flinging fun in “Tiswas”, all were to come.

Also to come was that fatal and underestimated end-of-day announcement by Mike Prince and Shaw Taylor, marking the end of a era and ATV becoming Central on 1 January 1982.

Soon after the stockpiled episodes of Crossroads ran out, ATV’s name disappeared from the ITV network for good. Central was here to stay, and continued using the centre, for Children’s ITV, Crossroads (until 1988) and many other things until a huge mistake by the Conservative government in 1990 allowed a strange bid system to creep into the franchise race, where the highest bidder – sometimes – won. We all know the outcome though. Central survived with a curious £2000 a year bid, making them secure in ITV but susceptible to takeover.

And taken over they were, by newcomer Carlton.

The globe had turned into a cake, and the cake was transformed into a plainer dish of letters to make the new “Central”. And it wasn’t only the lettering that was thin – someone saw that the old ATV Centre was just not profitable. The end.

The plug was pulled on the studios for a more modern, cost-effective equivalent. ATV Centre was to close, forever.

A friend of mine still has the Henry Butcher sales catalogue from the clearance, and its sad reading. A full colour brochure packed with pictures of cameras, the Central News set, VTR machines, catering equipment, tables and chairs, even down to gigantic publicity pictures of Les Dennis, all for sale, and sold it was. My friend bought a Canon studio camera from the clearance and still has it, with two more as spares with the globe logo still attached. He tells me that people from far away as France were there to pick over the ruins of the once mighty Central.

ITV had changed forever and time with it. The Birmingham of 1970 was now starting to go. The tower blocks – now crumbling and as derelict as the slums they replaced – were being pulled down, the Bull Ring Centre was decaying, and so too was ATV Centre.

Part of the end of what was to be a great new future for the City of Birmingham, their very own colour TV studio. Times change.

Birmingham is now running away from the image of its past: the concrete monsters, the Bull Ring, and Crossroads coming from a set constructed with hardboard in 1975. Now ATV Centre is one of Birmingham’s concrete monsters, wind whistling through it even as you read this, ready for demolition. Ironically, to be put in its place is a “modern entertainment development”. Odd, because that’s what ATV Centre was to be part of initially – a development called “The Paradise Centre”.

It would have been nice to see it saved, but who wants to save a monster? The Centre is just part of the horrible jigsaw of its past that Birmingham wants to forget. If you live in the vicinity, visit before it and wonder what Lew would have made of it all.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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